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Telos 155 (Summer 2011): Adorno

Telos 155 (Summer 2011) is now available for purchase here.

In the autumn of 1962, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, whose work is the topic of this special issue, wrote bluntly: “It would be advisable . . . to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies. It is not a progress of consciousness.” The invitation to crudeness may seem surprising, coming from Adorno, still misrepresented as the pessimistic aesthete, consistently hostile to engaged activism, mass culture, and representational art. Such are the standard stereotypes. Yet here that same Adorno tries to reclaim a radical understanding of progress, the fulfillment of material needs and an empirical alleviation of suffering. Progress diminishes bodily pain; it is not—his rejection of Hegelian idealism is explicit—”a progress of consciousness.”

Detlev Claussen, the biographer of Adorno, concludes the opening essay in this issue with this quotation, which so starkly highlights Adorno’s political predispositions and his philosophical agenda. Hostile readers might misunderstand Adorno’s appeal to eliminate hunger, in the midst of the Cold War and in divided Germany, as an indication of Communist leanings. Nothing could be further from the truth for Adorno, a consistent critic of Soviet societies, who was well aware that Communism had contributed more than its share to the perpetuation of hunger and torture, the end of which he was envisioning as the content of a genuine progress. For the left, Adorno was always too much the aesthete; for the right, he was too much the Marxist, whose thinking was blamed for the student movement’s spiraling descent into terrorism. Claussen presents him to us here through a collection of misunderstandings: the proliferation of misquotations that popularized misrepresentations of his positions; the misunderstanding with his mentor Siegfried Kracauer; the gap that opened up and continues to grow between Adorno and his reception in the influential work of Jürgen Habermas; and perhaps above all, the painful break with the German student movement. Where Adorno and, more broadly, Critical Theory are still treated dismissively, especially in some German academic circles, these various strands of misunderstanding and even mutually exclusive criticisms coexist in an overdetermined antipathy. This issue of Telos demonstrates the vitality of the current Adorno discussion, and the timeliness of aspects of his work.

The critique of suffering is at the heart of Adorno’s understanding of the work of art, as Russell Perkins shows. Approaching Adorno through his posthumously published Dream Notes, Perkins proceeds to explore a core element of Adorno’s aesthetics, the disturbing juxtaposition of an abstract language of philosophical aesthetics with a shocking rhetoric of violence. Questions of witnessing, the expression of suffering, protest and complicity intertwine. If the artwork refuses expressions of violence, it participates in repression, but if it conveys the violence, it may exploit it by appealing to sadistic voyeurism. Perkins presents a compelling case for Adorno’s construction of the work of art as paradox: “the art object as simultaneously wound and weapon, that is, as a kind of wound that enacts its own wounding. This metaphor is fundamental both to Adorno’s theorization of artistic modernism and to the construction of his own theoretical project, indicating a mode of artistic and philosophical testimony in which the enunciatory position of witness has become inseparable from the positions of aggressor and victim—in which bearing witness to violence is only possible from within these modes of participation in violence.”

Lauren Coyle carefully traces Adorno’s multivalent relationship to Hegel, what he borrowed as well as what he criticized, rejected, and misapprehended, drawing especially on Negative Dialectics and two lecture series, History and Freedom from 1964–65 and Lectures on Negative Dialectics from 1965–66. Against orthodox Marxists—but equally against post-metaphysical philosophy—Coyle shows how Adorno shares with Hegel a rejection of any priority of the subject. At stake, for both, is a dialectic, which means that “for Adorno as for Hegel, . . . the subject is conditioned by the objective institutions of which it is a part, simultaneously crafter and artifact of social objectivity.” So much for his alleged subjectivism. Coyle also provides a brilliant exposition of Hegel and Adorno on history, and especially Adorno’s refusal of the triumphalist bias of the historical dialectic: “Adorno feels compelled by the actual course of history to deny that every negation of a negation equals an affirmative positive reality. That is, at times, the negation of a negation results in a sublation that does not truly reconcile the contradictory parts, even though it may present itself as doing so.” Furthermore Coyle argues that through his departure from Hegel, Adorno misreads certain issues, especially regarding “determinacy, reconciliation, and the dialectic of universal and particular,” leading to some weaknesses in his account of modern capitalism.

Adorno’s Hegel reception is inseparable from his reading of Lukács. Timothy Hall dissects Adorno’s long-standing engagement with Lukács, paying special attention to two seemingly disparate elements of his critique: “the two-pronged and seemingly contradictory character of this critique, which, on the one hand, criticizes Lukács for not getting beyond idealism and, on the other, takes him to task for regressing behind it.” The former betrays a Fichtean productivism in which the subject produces its world, resulting in a blindness to material objectivity and heteronomy: there really is nothing outside the subject. The latter, however, the regression behind idealism, takes the shape of a persistent romantic anti-capitalism, the dubious utopia of a society without an exchange principle. Hall closely examines Adorno’s readings of Lukács, especially in Negative Dialectics, which he treats as an emphatic critique of Hegelian Marxism, the idealism of which Adorno aspires to replace with an “object-centered conception of praxis.” In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács famously tried to resolve the antinomies of the commodity form through an invocation of the consciousness of the proletariat as the embodied subject-object unity, as if real social history were to be compressed into an exercise in idealist philosophy. Yet for Adorno, Lukács’s solution, a celebration of romantic anti-capitalism, amounts to a refusal of all exchange mechanisms in the name of a hypostasis of use value, which paves the way toward the cruelty that would emerge as Stalinism. By extension, the dynamic that Hall identifies anticipates the tendency in strands of contemporary anti-capitalism to slide from an emancipatory critique of exploitation into a repressive defense of dictatorial regimes.

The next three essays address aspects of ethics in Adorno’s work. Roger Foster directs our attention to Minima Moralia, with its microanalyses viewed as intentional alternatives to any systematic or normative ethical account. For Foster, this genre choice pushes the ethical discussion toward questions of the good life and away from generalizing rules. After reviewing several contemporary ethical approaches, Foster argues that “Minima Moralia is best understood not simply as a theory of resistance to wrong life, but rather as a performance of ethical resistance through its intrinsic aesthetic arrangement. . . . [I]t inaugurates a new, entirely unique, and deeply modernist idea of ethical critique as the aesthetic presentation of individual experience.” Yet that individual experience finds itself beleaguered by the inescapable character of modern society, the principle of a universal fungibility, which is Adorno’s reframing of the exchange-value problem. Infinite substitution occludes particularity, and qualitative difference disappears, as Minima Moralia describes a dystopic equality of homogeneous sameness. As Foster puts it, “Our language pushes us to reenact what Adorno calls the ‘tacit assent to the priority of the general over the particular’ every time we speak or write.”

Eric S. Nelson takes the ethical question in another direction by building on Dialectic of Enlightenment, where Horkheimer and Adorno posit a strong relationship between the domination of inner nature (the mastery of libido in the process of identity formation) and external nature, i.e., the physical world. This allows Nelson to push Critical Theory in an environmentalist direction. He underscores Adorno’s critique of humanistic anthropocentrism, especially in Kantian idealism, with its brutal elevation of humanity over the rest of nature. Nelson quotes from Adorno’s study of Beethoven: “Nothing is more abhorrent to the Kantian than a reminder of the resemblance of human beings to animals. . . . To revile human animality—that is genuine idealism.” Yet the later Critical Theory of Habermas and Honneth, according to Nelson, separates humanity, for which it reserves the principles of communicative reason, from nature, which remains subject to instrumental reason, always available for exploitation by humanity in its quest for domination. Similarly, Nelson appreciates the stance of Dialectic of Enlightenment‘s parallel between inner and outer nature as providing an opportunity to criticize precisely those strands of environmentalism that focus exclusively on the natural world, without raising social concerns.

In the third of the essays on ethics, Fabian Freyenhagen carefully analyzes the standing of Adorno’s ethics via a consideration of James Gordon Finlayson’s discussion of normativity and negativism in Adorno. In the background is Habermas’s assertion of the groundlessness of Adornian ethical positions, against which Finlayson had tried to mount a defense. Freyenhagen takes issue with Finlayson’s description of Adorno’s ethics of resistance and points toward an alternative reconstruction of Adorno’s ethics: “The happiness of having ineffable insights is suitable neither as a normative basis for Adorno’s ethics nor as an etiology of the virtues involved in exercising this ethics. Nonetheless, Finlayson has pointed the way for those who want to defend Adorno and address this problem. I have suggested that a negativistic strategy might be the best approach for achieving this aim, but much more needs to be said to validate this suggestion.”

Two final contributions conclude this issue by pulling back from Adorno to offer wider perspectives. Maurizio Meloni considers contemporary naturalism, the pervasiveness of a new scientific thinking. While seemingly at odds with Critical Theory, it simultaneously represents a distant variant of the materialism that Adorno advocated against the repressive imperatives of idealism. While naturalism, such as cognitive psychology and genomic biology, seems very remote from garden-variety continental philosophy, it echoes Nelson’s environmentalist reading of Dialectic of Enlightenment as well as the insistence on the objectivism in Adorno’s critique of Hegel. In a magisterial overview of current debates, Meloni surveys variants of anti-naturalism as responses to the explosion of science. The expansion of the naturalist paradigm is surely the appropriate setting in which to discuss what is currently called the “crisis in the humanities.” Finally, Howard Eiland presents a brilliant set of notes on literature, in the tradition of Adorno and Benjamin. Addressing works from Shakespeare via Dickens to Kafka, he reads for the fall, the expulsion from paradise, and for the capacity of the artwork to teach the instability of our lives. In literature we can discover “that the customary grounds of existence are a makeshift, that truth is a black hole into which we fall at every moment, whether we realize it or not, and that all we can fairly do in negotiating the fall, once we have come to know it in the flesh, is to serve others, to grieve for them, and to ask forgiveness. [These] stories constitute a standard by which to measure claims of human progress,” which, Adorno would remind us, is not a progress of consciousness.

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